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Unfortunately, Secret Invasion’s AI credits are exactly what we should expect from Marvel


Disney’s Marvel brand has cemented itself as a disquietingly dominant pop cultural fixture whose outsize influence on the larger entertainment industry can be seen in the way that virtually every studio is in the cinematic universe business these days. Even now, Marvel’s approach to filmmaking doesn’t always work well or resonate with audiences. But because Marvel’s one of the largest fish in the pond, decisions it makes — especially those regarding the technology behind its films and tv shows — are easy to interpret as the studio merely keeping pace with the times rather than as one of Hollywood’s giants helping to define what entertainment should look like and how it should be made.

For the most part, Marvel’s hype-forward way of debuting new projects and then touting all the tech-driven creativity involved in their making afterward has worked in the studio’s favor. But with Secret Invasion — Disney Plus’ latest series set in the MCU — and its open use of AI-generated art, Marvel’s waded into a complicated situation where its own troubled history with VFX workers and AI’s demonstrated potential for harming human artists both make the show seem to be a concerning sign of things to come.

Secret Invasion follows Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury as he returns to Earth in order to deal with a network of shapeshifting alien refugees, the Skrulls, who turn to global terrorism after years of patiently hiding in secret and waiting to be delivered to a new homeworld of their own. In the show’s title credits, a swirling cascade of shadowy faces and cityscapes melt and morph into one another — foreshadowing Secret Invasion’s depiction of a world being secretly infiltrated by a dangerous enemy.

Because the title credits for Disney Plus’ Marvel series have never adhered to a singular style, it’s always been interesting to see how different creative teams distill their shows’ themes into the short sequences. But as clear as the throughline between Secret Invasion’s subject matter and its credits was, what jumped out to many viewers watching was how Marvel was seemingly opening its latest show with a sequence prominently featuring images and animations generated with the assistance of machine learning tools.

Soon after Secret Invasion’s first episode debuted, executive producer Ali Salim confirmed to Polygon that visual effects company Method Studios had used AI tools to help generate the credits, calling the approach “explorative and inevitable.” As that glib use of “inevitable” might indicate, Marvel appeared to be unprepared for the blowback the news created — particularly at a time when artists have been voicing their concerns about the proliferation of AI tools — and seemed not to have considered how its use of the technology might be seen by some as a sign of things to come.

Following Salim’s confirmation that Marvel had worked with AI vendors, waves of casual viewers and professional artists alike began voicing their distaste online over the studio’s decision. Marvel, being one of the most powerful entertainment companies in the world, is no stranger to weathering backlash. But the Secret Invasion situation has felt unique because of how it’s drawing the general public into a larger, ongoing conversation artists like Jeff Simpson  — a concept artist who worked on Secret Invasion’s visual development team — have been having for quite some time now about AI tools’ potential to disrupt their livelihoods by putting them out of work.

In response to the initial outpouring of criticism that came to dominate the conversation around Secret Invasion, Method Studios released a statement on Thursday insisting no artists’ jobs were lost or made obsolete due to their work on the show involving the use of AI tools. Method Studios’ assertion that its entire creative process was “guided by expert art direction” that “encompassed the initial storyboard phase, illustration, AI generation, 2D/3D animation and culminated in the final compositing stage” seemed to be directly addressing concerns about whether the studio’s workflow at all involved the use of images Marvel / Disney don’t own the rights to — a problem common with these kinds of tools.

But on the separate yet related matter of human artists potentially being made obsolete by machine learning tools, it was also easy to see Method Studios’ statement as an attempt at downplaying the possibility of a future in which artists lose out on this kind of work by way of the projects not needing (or intending to involve) them in the first place. 

One of the more interesting things about the way Secret Invasion’s credits have been received is how their intentional garishness — that sometimes difficult to define but recognizably “AI-generated” look — has come across as looking sort of cheap and ugly or at least not befitting of a Marvel Studios project to some viewers. However deliberate the overall effect might have ultimately been, in looking so much like the generative AI art that’s begun to flood parts of the internet, Secret Invasion’s credits saddled the show with a kind of baggage Marvel likely didn’t want and probably could have avoided the way Westworld managed to.

When Westworld main title designer Patrick Clair and AI researcher Dr. Pinar Yanardag were feeding footage from the show’s first two seasons into a generative adversarial network to create visuals for the show’s season 3 opening credits, people were still referring to the network’s output as “dreams” and “hallucinations.” Whether it was because of Westworld’s revolutionary killer robot uprising premise or because viewers just weren’t thinking about AI-generated images the same way isn’t clear, but there wasn’t much fuss made about the show’s credits in its final two seasons, which does suggest some degree of openness to AI-generated images on audiences’ parts.

Though he himself has benefitted from using machine learning tools in his work, Clair told me by email that he sees some of the fear in response to them as being completely justified, given how “they are going to reshape industries and jobs will be lost.” But Clair also stressed that rather than operating from a place of fear, artists should interpret machines’ present-day inability to “replace human ingenuity or originality” as a sign that they’ll be needed in the quickly changing future.

“Some old jobs will change, some new jobs will emerge, and some jobs will be lost.”

“The problem with conversations driven by fear is that they often lack nuance, and when arguments lack nuance, they lack compassion and empathy,” Clair said. “I hate seeing artists criticized for good-faith attempts at innovation. I don’t see AI as an existential threat for any creative role, but like other technologies before them (digital video replacing film, CGI over traditional animation), they will change the way our industry works. Some old jobs will change, some new jobs will emerge, and some jobs will be lost.”

Jen Bartel is an Eisner Award-winning illustrator whose work has appeared on the covers of Marvel, DC, Image, and Vault’s comic books. When we spoke by email recently, she reasoned that while machine learning tools’ potential to harm shouldn’t be downplayed, they can definitely be helpful tools for artists in a number of situations.

“These uses of machine learning tools have allowed for artists from all branches of a variety of creative industries to streamline their processes and make work that they simply couldn’t output 100% by hand, which is a good thing,” Bartel said. Disney, in fact, has often been at the forefront of these kinds of advances with technologies ranging from the original multiplane camera to Pixar’s RenderMan rendering software. But looking at the Secret Invasion credits and Marvel’s response, pure innovation that assists arts is not really the endgame Bartel sees.

“What isn’t good is when artists get completely removed from the creative process entirely, and the opening of Secret Invasion feels very much like it’s heralding that potential future,” she says.

While Bartel doesn’t personally work in VFX, she told me that it’s becoming increasingly common for the kinds of clients she works with to “test out incorporating AI into various parts of production pipelines of all kinds” in a way that signals their intent to keep these tools around as they evolve and become more sophisticated.

“One thing I’m personally aware of is companies using AI image generators to make a ‘base’ picture and then hiring an artist to ‘touch it up’ so that it’s usable as key art or for promotional materials,” Bartel described. “This is a process that, even a year ago, would have had to have been 100% human-made, but now we’re seeing 2D artists and illustrators brought in at the tail end and asked to ‘fix’ awkward AI images, which usually ends up being way more work than one would think, at far less pay.”

Stepping back from Secret Invasion specifically for a moment, the steady drumbeat of (oftentimes gleeful-seeming) warnings about the inevitable ascension of AI tools does have a way of making their ever presence in our future — especially when it comes to entertainment — appear to be a fact that’s been decided upon. But from that same zoomed-out perspective where we can see Secret Invasion’s opening credits as just one of many data points that make up the larger story of where Disney’s at as a company, the sequence looks a lot like exactly the sort of move one would expect from a studio like Marvel at a time when its sky-high budgets haven’t always translated to commercial success or the best visual effects.

This is a precarious situation, but it’s largely one of the studios’ own making

What we’ve seen from movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, as well as series like She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel, is that as polished as Marvel’s projects tend to be on some fronts, the artists tasked with bringing the studio’s fictional realities to life are often working with tight turnarounds, high expectations on work the studio awards to VFX houses based on who can do it most cheaply, which leads to less-than-stellar end results. Because there’s been so much more critical attention being paid to the quality of Marvel’s visuals and the explanations behind them, it makes sense that people would see Secret Invasion’s credits as yet another sign of the studio cutting corners and putting pressure — albeit a different kind of pressure — on artists in the process.

The looming threat of job scarcity might not induce the same kind of anxiety that being worked to the bone and run ragged does, as some animators who worked on Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse say of their experience with the Marvel-branded Sony production. But both situations are different expressions of the same underlying problem that’s plaguing all of the studios putting out big-budget superhero fare in 2023: audiences have come to expect these things to be more slick, stylish, and impressive than ever before, and making that happen costs money that the Disneys, Sonys, and Warner Bros. Discoveries of the world would rather not spend.

This is a precarious situation given how bullish all of the studios have been about banking on their comic book and superhero IP to lead to future photos, but it’s largely a situation of their own making and one whose far-reaching impacts can already be seen disrupting workers’ lives in negative ways.

Like Patrick Clair, Jen Bartel isn’t dismissive of the potential machine learning tools have to become invaluable assets for traditional artists working to make magnificent things or their capacity to create much more human-feeling content. But rather than breathlessly championing AI’s beneficial use cases or just playing a game of wait-and-see while studios experiment with AI-generated images of rapidly increasing quality, Bartel believes that what people need to be doing right now is recognizing how this situation isn’t just about one show but rather the future of creative workers rights.

“Considering the groundswell in the fight for labor rights we’re seeing across all industries today, ranging from the WGA strike to Amazon and Starbucks employees unionizing, to truck drivers fighting for better conditions, the important thing for both artists and end consumers to understand is that creative labor IS labor; that we are also workers, and that commercial / entertainment art is also a field that exploits us in increasingly destabilizing ways,” Bartel said. “That’s ultimately why all of us need to raise awareness about this, whether we like it or not.”


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